A week ago, a dear friend gifted me with an ounce of Aesthete Tea’s Golden Milk. The tisane is a warming and heady blend, filling me with its saffron light from toes to head. A closer inspection of the pouch revealed that this spiritual infusion of beauty and health is just 49 miles away via interstate. Intrigued, I sent an email to Aesthete Tea. Owner Briana Thornton graciously agreed to answer my questions.
RR: What prompted you to open a tea business in Portland?
BT: My background is in Fine Art originally. I attended the School of Visual Arts at NYU where I studied the fine arts. I worked in art galleries for the six years I lived in New York. When I moved to Portland in 2015, I worked freelance for creative and branding agencies. I always knew, since I was young, that I wanted to open my own business and have my own brand; I was just not sure what that looked like. In 2017, I decided to join forces with my mother, who is an herbalist and folk healer. To be completely honest, when we first started, we hoped it would become something but never thought we would be here 3.5 years later. I decided to create a tea business because I wanted a creative outlet for myself that shared my culture and love for the arts and nature in a healthy way with others.
RR: How has COVID impacted that?
BT: When COVID first hit, we closed down. It was March 15th, five days before my 29th birthday and I thought “this is it, it was a good run.” For three months I worked day to day. I refused to look too far ahead which most of my friends who also own businesses, advised me against. I am a strong believer in the power of the mind and intention and refused to look at the negative. If I could make it through…one day at a time, that was enough. Three months later the Black Lives Matter movement began from the devastating and horrific deaths of black men in the United States. As a black woman, I began to use my business Instagram as a platform to speak my opinion (something I have always done) and tried to spread awareness. We raised money for organizations that supported black Americans through our tea sales. People began to notice and soon we were being recognized by large publications and our sales were increasing, the most recent being our feature in British VOGUE with the Queen herself, Beyonce, on the cover.
RR: Your “Roots” section on the website states “ . . . know their farmers and source only the highest quality ingredients from individuals and collectives that share the same values in quality, ethics and health.” How and where did you discover the highest-quality peppercorns and turmeric root, etc.?
BT: The tea and herb world are pretty small when you work with family farms. Many of them want to help each other, those who work hard with their families in small communities. We discovered them by asking one connection or farmer, who asked another, we received names from relatives living in the US of family working on Co-ops in Africa. Of farmers in Assam who picked by hand, of farms in Japan who grew and processed entirely with Solar Power. I guess it was a bit ‘old school’ in a sense. I met people at POC markets, did research, watched videos, FaceTimed, visited farms (locally). We create relationships. These people do not just grow our herbs, they are friends.
RR: Did you find the sources and start the business or did you start the business and find the sources? Some of both?
BT: I suppose it was a little of both. We started out very, very small. I think we had maybe two teas. We still have a minimal selection compared to other brands because we are so strict on where our ingredients come from and how it is grown.
RR: What are the advantages of “farm direct” for the consumer? What are the challenges on your end?
BT: The advantages are that I can tell you the type of soil, altitude, day and name of the person who picked it. The challenges are that we sell out fast. Sometimes we cannot get enough tea, a flush tastes different, or weather affects growth.
RR: Do you grow or wildcraft any of your ingredients?
BT: We do not at this time. There are a lot of regulations with the ODA and FDA that make this a bit more complicated than it seems but the ultimate goal is to grow 80% of our own products.
RR: “Long live the folk healer!” Explain the beauty of this statement.
BT: My mother is a folk healer, herbalist, green witch. Whatever you would like to call her. Her – and now my – traditions are passed down and the statement is just that…long live the folk healer. An ancient tradition of communing and sharing nature to heal and connect that should never die or be lost to history.
RR:How did you find and quality test your high mountain oolong from Taiwan and the Assam black from India?
BT: We tested from multiple farms that held the same values we were looking for. Ultimately they had the best product, but moreover, the best work, grow and environmental aspects to their farms.
RR: What criteria need be met to get your “ethics blessing”?
BT: The workers must be paid a fair living wage. Most of our farms are co-ops so the individuals who pick the leaves have a share in the business. Some, like a farm we use in Africa, pays for the workers’ children to go to school and they are guaranteed a job higher up in management on the farm upon graduation. Our farm in Japan uses solar power entirely, making their carbon footprint almost nonexistent. It is about respecting humans, the soil, the environment, the animals who call these areas home. Its strange to think of what we ‘require’ for an ‘ethics blessing’ – when I type out what we look for, it seems that those all should just be normal practice with every business, should they not?
RR: Your mission statement boldly states your inclusive philosophy of respect and acceptance for people. How has this overarching philosophy presented itself in your products, your store, your purchases, your hiring, etc.?
BT: Our company is very diverse. I am Black, Native American, and Irish. I am queer and a woman. I was raised vegan by a mother who had me praying to dirt and laying in the woods. My place in the world has always been a bit of a fight with what society said I should or should not be. We present this in our brand through our fully transparent and full expectancy of every human regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identification, age, creed, class. Equality is something I will always be loud and proud about that this is seen through every aspect of our company. We are open and loving above anything else and we hope that shows through all aspects of our brand.
RR: The design of your packaging is exquisite in its simplicity. Is that “less is more” vibe deliberate? Explain.
BT: Yes, this was deliberate. The idea was to have it be neutral. It is about what is inside of the packaging and we wanted the tea and herbal blends to be the most beautiful.
RR: Finally, what is in your cup?
BT: Currently, Assam. I tend to be on a high caffeine kick this time of year.
Briana Thornton (She/Her)
3530 SW Multnomah Blvd, Portland Ore. 97219
New Location opening Fall 2020
Photo of Briana by Annika Bussman and used with permission
Image of tea and packaging by Kris LeBoeuf and used with permission